Monday, January 3, 2011

Why Michael Vick Is Not the Problem

Dog fighting---the great American pastime . . .

A yard in Louisiana where fighting dogs were found in 2005.

When the story first broke, I was actually grateful for the  prime-time attention devoted to the unspeakable cruelties involved in dog fighting.  But I also watched closely  to see exactly how the narrative would take shape. In addition to exposing the lurid practices of this centuries-old "sport," including rape stands, electrocution, and drowning, the media saw to it that powerful, successful, black athlete Michael Vick was singled out to became the public  face of dog fighting and animal abuse. The dogs became forever known as the "Vick Dogs" and, eventually, "Vick-tory Dogs, "spared from euthanasia and sent away, some to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, for rehabbing.

I consider myself an animal rightist, and condemn animal cruelty, but one is never  just one thing in isolation.  A worldview is full of overlap, as well as inconsistencies. I found my way to animal rights through Civil Rights, gay rights, and feminism, and am constantly confronted with ethical  and worldview dilemmas relating to all the many issues that constantly inflect my life: animals, food, race, gender, sexual orientation, geo-politics, and on and on.  The burning question that hovers over us all is whether or not non-human animals deserve our moral consideration and, if so, what does that consideration look like?  This keeps me dancing in the red hot (non-leather) shoes.

But one thing is clear. The media focus on Vick quickly became a twisted, national obsession.  So-called animal-loving websites became full of horrific posts about killing, zapping, drowning, torturing, and hating Michael Vick. I'm so tired of being asked what I think about him I want to take a nap.  I've never met Michael Vick, and don't follow sports, but I do know what I've read.   When all is said and done, Vick has been talking with kids and reaching a demographic that the AR movement has failed in reaching. Hmmmmm. 

Animal rights organizations have done a successful job of setting up Michael Vick as the poster boy for animal abuse (ALDF and PETA), and, in the case of HSUS, possible redemption.   For others he is the O.J. of animal abuse (would the media have cared so much if Nicole hadn’t been white, or if Vick hadn't been black---? Answer: nope), the Willie Horton of the justice system (recidivism and fear of black male violence: should Michael Vick ever own another dog?), and the real-life avatar of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, that nightmarish literary symbol of black masculine violence that scared the holy shit out of white readers. As his bio tells you, Vick went  from being  a “poverty-stricken kid who makes good” to “fallen hero" who's picking himself back up again.  There are a lot of narratives at work in the Michael Vick story: race, racism, poverty, Horatio Alger, animals, class, wealth, status, violence, black masculinity, transgression, law, law-breaking, justice, punishment and, maybe, before the story is over, redemption, though there are some, of course, who will continue to hate Michael Vick until the day he dies.

After Vick was arrested, and during his trial, as the media lept to report every gory detail, self-described animal lovers began to post online comments that moved beyond anger over animal abuse, to actually connect black masculinity to violence against animals,  and  to allow some indulging in good old-fashioned ad hominem racism.  Websites began to advertise tee shirts with phrases like “Castrate Michael Vick,” “Neuter Michael Vick,” and “Execute Michael Vick.” There was even a Michael Vick dog toy which you could throw to your dog to be----well------gnawed to smithereens.  You can't have lived in the U.S. for long to know about our charming history of lynching, castrating, drowning, and burning black men.  For a smart article on Michael Vick, please see Melissa Harris-Perry's piece in The Nation.

Then that ever-reliable and oh-so-thoughtful Fox broadcaster Tyler Carlson made the infamous call that Michael Vick should be executed. Good grief, I want to say, we're back to this, only now it's not so easily dismissed as the rantings of some anonymous online poster, but spoken on national TV by an----ahem-----broadcaster?  I'm not saying that it's racist to want Michael Vick to be held to the same standards as us mere mortals. No, he screwed up---big time. But why does everyone continue to trot him out as "the face of dog fighting in the U.S." as if he himself invented the despicable practice? Even if  people don't get or can't admit the racial dynamics, then maybe they can at least agree that strategically they are missing an opportunity with Michael Vick, who is still considered a sports hero by many young men, and who maybe is best situated to make a huge impact on kids---and animals. Mightn't he be the perfect mouthpiece for discouraging dog fighting and animal cruelty? As someone who's "been there and done that," mightn't his words carry some weight? Why should it be so impossible for Michael Vick to make amends this way, by speaking out?

The AR movement (not monolithic, but a shorthand for identifying a broad spectrum of groups advocating on behalf of non-human animals)  is very white. Statistics vary, but some say maybe 3-4% of those identifying themselves as members of various animal rights groups are not white. From my own experience,  many animal groups are composed of mostly white faces. At animal conferences, I see very few faces of color, and I keep asking why.

Does this mean that white people  are the only ones to care about animals? Uh, yeah, right. . . .   Try to tell that to all my friends of color who pamper their pooches.  The concern about the lack of faces of color in the AR movement is an  issue to be taken up on another day.  So my  real question is, what racial anxieties and desires get played out through Michael Vick,  coded as "Vick the animal abuser"? Does this offer yet another  opportunity for people to talk about that ever-electric subject of race, without really talking about it?

 Personally,  I don't care if Michael Vick is some day allowed to own a dog.  This question, which has been making the rounds on numerous websites (there's a poll being taken by various animal groups)  is what I call "sound byte distraction."  The real issue has nothing to do with Vick himself, but whether we should push for legislation that makes it illegal for anyone who's abused animals to own an animal again.

In truth, if Michael Vick ever owned a dog again, that dog would likely  be the most scrutinized and pampered dog in the whole country. Michael  Vick is not the one we have to worry about right now. This inane focus on whether or not he should ever have the chance to own another dog, distracts people from actually doing something to eliminate the overwhelming problem of dog fighting throughout this country---in small, rural areas, in the inner-city, in suburbia, and so on. Dog fighters don't exist in a bubble.  In the more organized fighting world, there  are the veterianarians who not only vaccinate but agree to pull teeth (to make it easier to force-breed a dog), etc., there are the law enforcement folks who turn a blind eye, there are the spectators who come from all backgrounds either for the pleasure of watching the violence, or to gamble, or both. 
Though dog  fighting is now illegal in every state (statutes vary, so read closely),  the law has never stopped the determined.

So I decided to learn more.  My own week of experience volunteering with almost 50 pitbull mixes rescued from an Indiana dog fighting raid over a year ago changed my life and I haven't been able to stop thinking about why dog fighting appeals to so many and what its  history is here in the U.S.

I'll try to be quick on some of the things I'm finding out:

Blood sports  involving fighting animals  for human entertainment have  been a practice for almost forever (the early Romans and Greeks, the Spanish, the French, etc.), and increased in England during Medieval times. Both bull- and bear-baiting were big sport  in Elizabethan England, and special arenas, like Bear Garden, were built, seating hundreds of spectators behind stone walls. The Queen and other royalty and foreign dignitaries attended these events, and gambling was a big draw.  The bears were chained, the bulls tethered, while dogs were released to attack them over and over in a virtual bloodbath.  When bull-baiting was finally outlawed in the first part of the 19th century, dog-on-dog fighting began to flourish even more.

British colonists brought with them to this country the tradition of dog fighting, as well as cock fighting, both of which were very popular in early American life.  The American Kennel Club used to sanction dog fighting and created "rules for the pit" where the dogs were fought.albrownletterhead.jpg

Dog fighting was once very popular with police and firemen. In fact, "The Police Gazette" used to function as an important information-source for dog fighters.

Dog fighters are often divided into different categories: professionals, hobbyists, and street fighters. Professionals are highly organized and usually own large numbers of dogs which they breed (bloodline is extremely important), sell, and fight. Sales of dogs, stud fees,  and the fights themselves can rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars over a year.  Hobbyists own just a few dogs, are more occasional fighters, and use their  dogs sporadically for the sport and for additional income. Street fighters regularly ignore what are known as "the rules of the pit," and engage their dogs  in spontaneous and brutal combat in alleys, abandoned lots, and playgrounds.  Interestingly, those dogs which professionals find too "human-aggressive" are often sold to street fighters instead of being "culled" (shot, killed with blunt-force trauma, etc.). This poses a terrible risk not only to other dogs, but people, as well.

According to the ASPCA, there's been an increase in high-profile sports and entertainment celebrities engaging in dog fighting, which combine the financial resources of a professional and the techniques and tactics of street fighting.  Dog fights, however, need audiences and, just as is the case with the "dog men" themselves (and some are women), spectators cross economic and social lines, and can include educators, lawyers, doctors, and even law enforcement----anyone who is drawn to the excitement and titillation of watching two dogs brutalize each other. Though some refer to this as a "sport" and liken it to boxing, dogs have not given their consent, and therefore have no choice in the matter.

"Dog men" breed fighting dogs they call "game dogs" who must be sound and stable and can be easily handled by human beings. Any signs of aggression toward people were not tolerated, which is why to this day, many fighting dogs, all the way through severe injury and into death,  remain loyal to and affectionate with those who abuse them so badly.


Famous dog fighters from the last couple decades: Ed Faron (author of the famous book GAME DOG), Randy (Ray) White, Jack Kelly (CONDITIONING THE PIT DOG), David Tant, Fat Bill, the Gambler, etc.  Michael Vick has a lot of company and, by the way, a large number of them are white men, many of whom have published books and articles on dog fighting, and remain "heroes" in the dog fighting world.

mauricecarverwino.jpgMaurice Carver one of the most "respected" pit dogmen (with fighter Wino).  Dogmen "love" their dogs.

oldfightcard.jpgOld Ticket to a day of dog fighting.


Why would you fight a dog you "love"? Because you believe your dog is born to fight and loves to do it. Because seeing your dog fight makes you feel strong and powerful. Because you believe that breeding, raising, and fighting dogs takes skill.  Because the money goes to your head, and you and your dogs are making $$$. You don't "love" the dogs you kill. They're either wimps or they failed you. No one loves a "bitch."  (Misogyny?)

Two dogs "going at it" in a ring.  Dog fighting is not wrestling. It's a fight to the death. Wonder how many female dogs are fighters, or how many are used as breeders, their teeth pulled so they can't fight off  the males while being force-bred on rape stands?

Whether you believe Vick or not, he is actually out there helping the HSUS with their campaign to end dog fighting. He's not unusual, he's not unique. You may cringe when he speaks of his passion and love for animals, but just "cringe" your way to any bullydog website.  They ALL love their  animals.

             A FINAL METAPHOR: The Story of A Glass Bottom Boat

The following is from  Randy (Ray) Fox's website  describing his own years as a dog-fighter.  buster080808.jpgI am grateful to him for sharing his reminiscences about the "old dogmen" and his own story below as a reformed dogfighter, even as he continues to breed and sell pitbull puppies (he says he no longer fights them):

"Don't do the things I am telling you in this story. You will certainly stand a chance of prison. A lady wrote me talking about Michial Vick the famous football player. She talked about him being charged with dogfighting. She talked about various things she had heard about that he had done and various charges he was facing. Michial Vick like many other famous athletes got caught up in the evil of money. It could happen to anyone that goes through that lifestyle. They have never had any money and all of a sudden they are rich. That creates a new personality that leads many into criminal activity. She ask me if it was a practice to kill lots of pitbulls in the dogfight game. The truth of the matter is with me and many other former dogfighters from the past. I calculate I could have killed five hundred pitbulls form the 1960's through the 80's. I'm not bragging about this. I'm still trying to figure how I was so cruel. I probably killed from ten to twenty dogs a year for twenty five years. Do the math. I'm not sure of the true count but there were lots of dogs that got put down. When a dog was around two years old he was rolled as it is called. That is a practice fight where he will be put to the test and see how tough and game he is. Plus the dog is judged on his fighting ability and biting power. If he doesn't pass that test he is killed. Yet some dogmen sold the sorry dogs and told people they were good dogs just to make a dollar. Dogs I raised and many dogs were brought to me by want-to-be dogmen to test also. I admit in the past which was years ago when I fought dogs. I shot dogs, I electrocuted them by attaching a clip lead to an ear and a clip lead on the flank. Then plugged this lead into a 110 volt outlet. I use to calculate it takes 20 to 30 seconds for them to die but after thinking about it a little. It really never took over 20 seconds for them to die. Most were killed by shooting. Some later on in the eighties were killed with a lethal shot. I have seen people hang them at dogfights. The reason for the lethal injection method is that the dog makes no noise just like with the electrical shock. Shooting noises with a gun attract attention in populated areas. That is why shocking and injections are used in that type area. I use to throw the dead dogs in a pond where the fish and turtles could eat them when I lived at Drummond,Oklahoma. My wife who was strictly against me dogfighting or hurting any dog. She had bad dreams about me doing this. She dreamed she was in a glass bottom boat out on the water and dogs were hitting and clawing at the bottom of the boat trying to get in."

Email from Randy: Alyce, You can use anything you like off my web. Thanks for asking. I see education on your email. Are you a teacher or secretary or what with the education field. Pitbulls are fun as you have learned. My pitbulls gives me something for this old man to look forward to daily. God Luck, Randy Fox

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